LOS ANGELES — The cars of the future are heading toward a dealership near you — without a human being at the wheel.
To Google Inc. and the other corporations that are investing millions of dollars to develop them, driverless, or autonomous, vehicles are a revolutionary combination of automotive and robotics technology that will yield enormous benefits in auto safety and performance, bringing to life the fantasy of K.I.T.T., the autonomous Pontiac Trans Am in TV’s “Knight Rider.”
According to U.S. government estimates, as many as 90 percent of all car accidents are caused by human error. The Eno Center for Transportation recently projected that if only 10 percent of all vehicles in the United States were self-driving, the number of accidents each year would be cut by 211,000, and 1,100 lives would be saved. And if 90 percent of vehicles drove themselves, as many as 4.2 million accidents could be avoided, saving 21,700 lives.
Several states including California have enacted safety and performance standards for driverless automobiles, and Google has indicated that its vehicles will be on sale by 2020.
“Increasingly, a car’s capabilities are determined more by its electronics than by its mechanics,” David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a Congressional hearing in November. “This is bringing countless innovations that improve driver comfort, provide useful information and entertainment, and, most importantly, advance safety.”
But last week at a California Department of Motor Vehicles workshop on driverless vehicles, the conversation wasn’t all about saving lives and state-of-the-art electronics. Something more insidious loomed over the discussion — the specter of “Big Brother.”
“The technology is coming”
The autonomous vehicle (AV) regulations that the DMV is developing must include privacy protections, giving users control over what data is gathered from robot-driven vehicles and how that information is used, John M. Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, told the DMV.
“Unless strong protections are enacted in the new regulations, once again society will be forced to play catch-up in dealing with the impact of the privacy-invading aspects of a new technology,” he warned.
Privacy advocates lobbied unsuccessfully for strict limits on data usage in the AV licensing law, known as Senate Bill 1298, that the California state Legislature passed in 2012. The law, which was promoted by Google, only requires that AV manufacturers “provide a written disclosure to the purchaser of an autonomous vehicle that describes what information is collected by the autonomous technology equipped on the vehicle.”
Under SB 1298, the DMV has until Jan. 1, 2015 to adopt regulations on the testing and use of self-driving vehicles on public roadways. Simpson anticipates a major fight with Google over privacy protections, noting that the Internet giant’s “entire business model is based on building digital dossiers about our personal behavior and using them to sell the most personal advertising to us.”
“The technology is coming,” he told MintPress News in an interview. “People should [be able] to use this technology without having to sacrifice their privacy.”
Savings in greenhouse gas emissions
The future of driverless vehicles was foreseen in “Knight Rider,” as well as Hollywood movies like “Christine,” “Batman” — the Batmobile in the 1989 film drives itself to Batman’s current location — “Total Recall” and “Demolition Man.”
Google has led the way in turning Hollywood’s vision into reality. Its engineers have been working since around 2009 to develop Google Chauffeur software and a roof-mounted, spinning LIDAR (laser radar) system that allows a vehicle to generate a detailed 3-D map of its environment. The car produces data to drive itself from the combination of these maps with high-resolution maps of the world.
A small fleet of Google AVs has been seen on the roads of Silicon Valley, and Google has reported that its cars have driven more than 500,000 miles without crashing.
German technology suppliers Bosch and Continental Automotive, as well as auto manufacturers Audi and BMW, are also competing to develop AVs, which are being touted for not only how they could improve safety, but also what they could do to prevent unnecessary driving trips, thus cutting down on greenhouse gases, and to increase the mobility of the disabled.
A recent McKinsey research study estimates that 300 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved annually with the adoption of autonomous vehicles.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin has suggested AVs would reduce the need for parking lots, since they could drop one person off at work and then pick up another instead of idling in a lot. In the case of a privately-owned car, he said, it could park itself in the most efficient way possible.
“Anybody who first gets in the car and finds the car is driving will be a little skittish,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said when he signed SB 1298 in October 2012. “But they’ll get over it.”
In June 2011, Nevada became the first state to regulate driverless cars, requiring that manufacturers show proof of 10,000 miles of autonomous vehicle operation in order to be licensed. So far, Google, Audi and Continental have met that licensing requirement. Florida passed a law in April 2012, and several other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Washington, have legislation pending.
A legislative analysis of California’s SB 1298, however, noted that privacy advocates were “troubled by the ability of this technology to collect without restriction large amounts of data and are asking that data collection be limited to only that data that is necessary for the operation of the vehicle and that such data not be retained any longer than is necessary for the operation of the vehicle.”
In response to those concerns, the bill was amended to include the provision requiring manufacturers to disclose the data they collect from AVs. But to privacy advocates, the amendment did not go nearly far enough.
“It doesn’t address how data is used,” Simpson told MintPress. The technology, he noted, “clearly has the ability to gather all sorts of information about you … where you go, where you stop, how fast you go.”
“The car must not become a data monster”
The California DMV now has the difficult job of fashioning the regulations implementing SB 1298. “Just as we are now tracked around the Internet, will Google and other purveyors of driverless car technology now be looking over our shoulders on every highway and byway?” Simpson asked at the agency’s March 11 workshop on AV regulation.
Will the data be used, he continued, to “track our movements and those of surrounding cars and mobile devices so that Google’s advertisers can better locate us?”
Simpson told MintPress it was particularly “disconcerting” that Google is now capable of “data manipulation and data mining across all of its services.“ As a result, he said, “If you have Google AV software and a Gmail account, all of this data can be put together in one profile.”
In its discussion of SB 1298, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office cautioned, “While restrictions on data collection might be desirable to assure that consumer privacy is protected, there is some question as to how the technology manufacturer would determine what constitutes ‘data necessary for the operation of the vehicle.’”
But Simpson said he believes manufacturers can be limited to using data for navigation purposes and barred from using it for marketing purposes.
If, for example, the data from a driverless car showed that “you’re stuck in a traffic jam … that would be OK,” he said. But it would not be permissible for the data “to show you were in traffic jams ‘x’ times a day and therefore you should listen to a mellow radio station.”
Even the chairman of the Volkswagen Group has expressed similar concerns.
“The car must not become a data monster,” Martin Winterkorn said earlier this month at a trade show in Germany. “I clearly say yes to Big Data, yes to greater security and convenience, but no to paternalism and Big Brother.”
The California DMV is expected to produce a first draft of the regulations in May or June. “I felt there was an awareness [of the privacy issues] on the part of the people running the workshop,” Simpson said, adding that the DMV commissioners also discussed cybersecurity, including whether it would be possible to hack into the data from an autonomous vehicle.
A Google representative also attended the workshop. The company, Simpson said, wants the regulations to have “maximum flexibility,” but he fears that would create ambiguity and “wiggle room.”
“You need to have regulations that mean something,” he added.
Google agreed in August 2012 to pay a record $22.5 million fine to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it misrepresented to users of Apple’s Safari browser that it would not put tracking “cookies” on users’ computers in order to deliver targeted advertising to them.
“Simply put, there is no reason to believe Google when it claims to be concerned about privacy,” Simpson told the DMV.
With ever more sophisticated electronics such as the OnStar security system also being incorporated into conventional automobiles, privacy advocates say privacy issues must be addressed proactively, not after the fact of an intrusion. And Simpson pointed out that California’s regulations may set the standard for other states.
“They could set the tone for what is done elsewhere,” he said.